In my previous post, I reviewed Esau McCaulley’s approach to finding the meaning of the Scriptures through the lens of the “black ecclesial tradition.” Here we see the fruit that this approach bears when considering the political witness of the church.
In chapter 3 McCaulley asks the question “What does the New Testament have to say about the political witness of the church in response to the oppressive tendencies of the state?” (50)
McCaulley asks this question primarily concerning political protest, in particular, the long tradition of African American protest in the Civil Rights movement and today. However, this topic has relevance, to any situations where “those in authority stand in the way of us living as free Christians.” (52)
McCaulley surveys several passages in the New Testament to answer the question. We’ll look at his interpretation of three of those passages: Luke 13:31-33, Galatians 1:3-4, and Matthew 5:3-12.
Jesus and Herod: Luke 13:31-33
“At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”Luke 13:31-33
Why was Herod trying to kill Jesus? Why did Herod see Jesus as a threat? While Herod did not fear God he understood that the populace saw Jesus’ healing ministry “as a sign of the in-breaking reign of God.” (55) He would have known that “the possibility that the advent of God’s reign through Jesus might upset his own,” (55) if not through divine power then through popular uprising.
Jesus responds by calling Herod a fox. Jesus meant this as a critique of the cunning and deceit he used to gain power. Herod used his power only to make himself appear great, not use it for the good of the people. By calling Herod a “fox” Jesus offers a “description of his political activity as it relates to the inevitable suffering of the people.” (55)
After that, Jesus refers to his prophetic identity. Jesus stands in continuity with the prophets of the Old Testament who combined a religious critique with a political one. McCaulley uses Isaiah as a case study to show that prophets “offer a criticism of Israel both for its failure to follow the one true God and for its oppression of the poor.” (57) For examples see Isaiah 5:8, 1:4, and 1:17. Isaiah saw that failures of righteousness and justice are linked. “Israel’s oppression of the poor in his day betrayed a practical apostasy” (58) and the prophets called out both the apostasy and oppression of Israel’s rulers.
Jesus and the prophets gave a political critique to those who practiced injustice and oppression.
Paul and the Rulers: Galatians 1:3-4
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”Galatians 1:3-4
McCaulley identifies the “present evil age” as the world held under the domain of spiritual powers. These “powers and authorities” (Ephesians 6:12) influence earthly rulers and their political, economic, and social policies. In Rome, this would have included “the demonic evil of slavery… and economic exploitation of the populace… both of which existed because of the policies of Roman leadership as dictated by spiritual forces.” (60)
How, then, does Jesus rescue us from this present evil age? We could interpret this passage by saying that Paul is only referring to “spiritual enslavement.” Or, we could interpret Paul as calling the church to establish God’s kingdom on earth in the present.
In contrast to these interpretations, McCaulley says that “Jesus saves us from our sins, and he also calls us into a kingdom that treats people better than the way Rome treats its citizens.” (61). Jesus rescues us from this present evil age by freeing us to live as free people while we await his return. As free people, we may with Paul call oppressive systems in this world evil.
McCaulley concludes from Paul: “Protest is not unbiblical; it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s word and vision for the future.” (62) The church stands as a continual truth-telling beacon, embodying the freedom of Jesus, in a dark world.
Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:3-12
Finally, we turn to the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). McCaulley reflects on three: Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, and blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are those who mourn: Those who mourn do so because they sense that something is wrong in the world. A theology of mourning keeps us from apathy. It causes us to hunger for something better. Mourning forms the basis of our protest.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: We need to do more than mourn what is wrong with the world, but be armed with a better way. Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God gives us that better world to long for. “Hungering and thirsting for justice is nothing less than the continued longing for God to come and set things right.” (66)
Blessed are the peacemakers: Mourning over the fallenness of our world, combined with a hunger to see things set right, leads us to pursue peace, to be peacemakers. The bible gives us a robust picture of peacemaking. Peacemaking involves more than just the cessation of external conflict, it involves truth-telling, righting wrongs, and restoring relationships. Biblical peacemaking can be both corporate (ethnic/national) and personal.
What do these reflections have to do with the church’s political witness? While the beatitudes certainly have a personal application, in the messianic context, a context in which Jesus is announcing himself as the new King with a new rule (see note 1 below), they are “unavoidably political.” In this context, “Jesus asks us to see the brokenness in society and to articulate an alternative vision for how we might live.” (66) and then to pursue that vision through peacemaking.
McCaulley does not offer us a systematic theology of political engagement. Instead, through this collection of texts (and more that I have left out), he demonstrates a pattern in Scripture that shows us that the systems of this world are corrupt (a present evil age) and that Christians have a role in identifying that corruption. He uses phrases like “bearing witness” and “articulate an alternative vision” to show that the New Testament doesn’t speak of using coercive power, but of showing a better way forward.
I believe his key points are as follows:
- Christ-followers have a role to play in calling out the evil of the present age embodied in unjust rulers and systems (political protest). In so doing, we follow the examples of Jesus and the prophets
- Christ frees us from this present evil age and that freedom enables us to live in such a way that bears witness to his coming kingdom (church as an alternate political reality)
- God calls us to seek the goodness of his kingdom, not as though we can construct it, but because we hunger and thirst for the justice that comes along with Christ’s reign. We do this through telling the truth, righting wrongs, and restoring relationships (advocacy, justice, reconciliation)
As we wait for the final coming of God’s kingdom at Christ’s return “He calls us to enter into this work of actualizing the transformation that he has already begun in the death and resurrection of his Son… [which] includes bearing witness to a different and better way of ordering our societies in a world whose default instinct is oppression.” (70)
 We face an interesting dilemma right off that bat. Was Jesus a political figure and did he threaten Herod’s reign? He answers this in John 18:36 saying, “my kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus is the King who, in an ultimate and eschatological sense, undermines all of the world’s kings and kingdoms. Yet, his kingship and kingdom do not derive from worldly power. Herod was right to be threatened by Jesus, but he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of that threat, just as Jesus’ disciples were right that he came to bring in a new kingdom, but fundamentally misunderstood the nature of that kingdom.
 Throughout this chapter, McCaulley translates Matthew 5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” instead of the more common righteousness. I wish he had explained this move since it may distract his readers. I believe McCaulley’s translation to be valid for two reasons. First, the Greek word carries with it a sense of justice. Second, as noted in the discussion of Isaiah, Scripture closely links righteousness (personal) with justice (public, social).
 Of particular note here is the book of Revelation, which stands as a critique of Roman power and oppression.
I keep meaning to ask you why you chose “Reading in Babylon” for your blog name. thanks,
The reference to Babylon harkens back to Israel’s role as exiles in Babylon (see Jeremiah 29). They were in a hostile environment, yet were called to seek the good of the city. I think Christians find themselves in a similar position today. One way we seek the common good is through learning and sharing knowledge from books, read through a biblical lens. In doing so I hope to simultaneously edify the church and point the watching world to Christ.